Why is it that different caregivers are impacted differently by the same situations? Why is it that only some first responders or members of the armed forces get PTSD while others in the exact same circumstances do not? Why is it that some of us are sensitive souls and others are not? Why is it that scapegoats get treated differently by different people – sometimes with negative, attacking behaviour, sometimes with compassion? The answer to these questions is less mysterious to us today than once it was.
We get some insight on this from the caregiver resource website https://adrenalfatiguesolution.com/caregiver-stress/.
It is essential for caregivers to take care of their own emotional and spiritual selves as caring for a loved one requires a great deal of inner strength and can be emotionally taxing. Caregivers tend to ignore their own emotions (or worse, let them build up), which only adds to their feelings of frustration and stress. Some find relief in talking to a trusted friend, a counselor or a spiritual adviser. Others find peace by participating in religious activities and prayer. Those who are not religious may still find calm in meditation or breathing exercises designed to sooth the mind and spirit. Visualizing a calm, peaceful place is helpful to some caregivers.
We now know that repressing our feelings, stuffing them down so deep that we are no longer aware of them, over time will make us sick and can result in all manner of dysfunctional acting out. We need to make sure that we talk about our feelings with those we trust and that we take on introspective inner work, be it dream interpretation, meditation or other methods of becoming more self-aware. These steps help release the building internal toxic pressure so that we can function in a more peaceful and healthy manner.
In the Christian tradition both Jesus and Paul used yeast and its impact on dough as a metaphor for understanding the impact in our actions and communities of the wrong yeast. Paul talked about throwing out the bread leavened with malice and wickedness, whereas Jesus warned about the yeast of the Pharisees, full of striving for recognition,pride, judgement, hypocrisy and malice. Jesus’ only new commandment was that his followers love one another as he had loved them, that is that they abstain from judgement, condemnation and criticism of each other. Rather he urged them to focus with humility on their own need for transformation. In psychological language we would talk about how repressed feelings like unresolved anger when focused outward can turn into habitual criticism, bitterness and malice, or when focused inward into self-destructive behaviors.
Taking this one step further, if you are looking for greater wisdom in self-care, freedom from damaging habits like irritability and angry criticism or from compulsive eating/drinking/entertainment as a coping tool to numb out unhappiness and turmoil, from increasing depression and anxiety or if one simply wants to survive and perhaps even thrive while being a long-term care-giver, then going deeper is necessary. This was also the path through the dark night of the soul for the committed followers of Jesus for whom God has disappeared and for whom depression and anxiety had replaced the joy and trust they had previously experienced.
So while this type of advice from the caregiver site listed above is generally helpful, for those experiencing the dark night of the soul or the torment of caregiver burnout, there is a path through introspection that promises a deeper healing and transformation for those who take it. In Eastern meditation traditions the cultivation of the “observer self” is essential to moving beyond one’s old programming into increasing calm and internal strength. In the psychoanalytic tradition, paying attention to strong feelings and dreams are two roads into what is really going on inside us and so increases our freedom from irrationally driven behaviour. In both cases a disciplined approach is recommended to shift conscious focus from “out there” to “in here” in order to better understand personal reactivity, anxiety, depressive feelings, etc., for although we use general words to name these experiences, each of us experience them uniquely because of how we were formed when we were young.
For example, my own mother had a caregiving situation that wired me in such a way that my relationship with women was seriously affected. It has only been in the last decade that I was finally able to become conscious of this dynamic and make better choices. As first born, I was the apple of her eye and a sunny baby. My brother born 15 months later was very colicky and then on top of that a short time later and for six months, she took in and cared for a sick friend’s baby. As a result, the benign neglect I suffered wired me into being a helper personality. Later in my marriage when I found myself disillusioned once again with “mom”, I became very restless and started looking for other “mothers”, just as I had done when I was little. Now when I feel this anxiety and disillusionment surfacing, because I now recognize that of course no one can be perfect, I am able to exercise self- compassion and in effect say “poor Danny” and reassure myself that everything is going to be ok.
The cultivation of this observer self is enhanced through meditative practices. So if you have been taught meditation even starting again for 5 or 10 minutes shortly after you wake up will open up your internal world to you. Writing down what comes up in your dreams (if you have a dream that catches your attention) or noting any strong feelings you have during the day, are great starting points for increasing self-awareness. Once you prime the pump you may well find pages of feelings and associated thoughts streaming out of you as what has been pent up inside you gains release. It is not something to worry about. Like the pus streaming out of a lanced boil, getting it out is helpful and healing in and of itself. Being able to say to yourself things like “it’s understandable I feel like this” – even if you do not understand why is also helpful because every feeling is there for a reason. It just may take a while to remember or discover why those feelings are coming up. Everything that has ever happened to us is still available within us and so in the end a certain wisdom truly based in self-understanding is possible, particularly if we are able to share these discoveries with an experienced old soul, whether a counselor or simply someone who has already been down the same path.
I invite you then to join with me in this journey of self-discovery and self-care. I have been on it for decades and will be on it for the rest of my life, perhaps into the next! This journey helps us move through difficult feelings instead of projecting them onto scapegoats or fleeing from them into compulsions. Moving through the feelings means coming to better understand one’s feelings and to develop what the Buddhists call self-compassion. As we recognize the early suffering that underlies our strong feelings and reactions, we become compassionate towards our younger suffering selves. Again in psychoanalytic language, we become the better parent to ourselves that our fallible parents could not be. With enough support on this journey, we will come through these dark terrors back into the light of a sunny beautiful day.
This may be hard to believe in the darkening, cold days of December but in fact to everything there is a season, including emotional storms, especially if you move with them rather than getting frozen in place. May your journey in the dark be fruitful and may you find your way through to self-care, self-compassion and the wisdom to be a wounded healer, rather than simply one of the walking or staggering wounded.